Feeling down or stressed? Try eco-therapy

Summer often means spending time outdoors, swimming, camping, taking walks, and just enjoying the great outdoors. These leisure activities are fun and good for you.

That's right. They're good for you.

Psychologists in the new field of eco-therapy believe that spending time outdoors is important for our health. Connecting more with nature can help improve depression, lower blood pressure, improve self-esteem, help with impulse control, decrease post-operative recovery time, and encourage new social behaviors in patients with dementia, according to ecotherapyheals.com and the book Ecotherapy: Healing with Nature in Mind.

Eco-therapists claim that eco-therapy can be especially beneficial for those with depression, anxiety, stress or other mental illnesses. Depression is the most common psychiatric disorder, and the incidence of depression has increased every year during the past century. Now, one in six people will experience a depressive episode in their lifetime.

Traditional treatment for depression has focused on medications and individual or group therapy. In addition, research indicates that mindfulness practices, including yoga can help alleviate depression.

Now, eco-therapists suggest that additional benefit can be gained by augmenting these approaches with activities such as gardening, walking or other outdoor exercise, or spending time with animals. Another form of eco-therapy occurs when we bring nature indoors, in the form of an indoor garden, potted plants, or natural lighting.  This contributes to creation of a healing environment.

Why is nature important to humans?

Regardless of age or culture, humans find nature restorative. In one study, researchers Marcus and Barnes found that more than two-thirds of people choose a natural setting to retreat to when stressed. In another study, 95% of those interviewed said their mood improved after spending time outside, changing from depressed, stressed, and anxious to more calm and balanced.

Why do we find nature so restorative?

"We have a kind of biologically prepared disposition to respond favorably to nature because we evolved in nature," says Roger Ulrich, a leading researcher in healing gardens. "Nature was good to us, and we tend to respond positively to environments that were favorable to us."

Many studies show that after a stressful event, images of nature very quickly produce a calming effect. Within three to four minutes after viewing nature scenes, blood pressure, respiration rate, brain activity, and the production of stress hormones all decrease and mood improves. This ability to recover from stress quickly in order to be ready to respond to new threats was important for our ancestors' survival.

"Nature is also fundamentally linked to our human spirituality," says Mary Jo Kreitzer, PhD, director of the Center for Spirtuality & Healing at the University of Minnesota. "Out in nature, we feel how we are connected to entities beyond ourselves and understand our interdependencies with other living beings." Nature provides a space in which we can connect spiritually with ourselves and with something greater than ourselves.  

So nature brings us calm, balance, and connection. What better reasons could we want to open our door and go for a walk!



Ecotherapy Heals

The Center for Health Design

See examples of evidence-based healthcare design at: http://jainmalkin.com/flash_site/index.html  




Buzzell, Linda and Chalquist, Craig (editors) (2009). Eco-therapy: Healing with Nature in Mind. Sierra Club/Counterpoint.

Gerecht, Hope (1999). Healing Design: Practical Feng Shui for Healthy and Gracious Living. Boston, MA: Journey Editions. 

Huelat, Barbara (2003). Healing Environments: Design For the Body, Mind & Spirit. Alexandria and Arlington, VA: Medezyn and Peecapress. 

Huelat, Barbara (2007). Healing Environments: What's the Proof? Alexandria and Arlington, VA: Medezyn and Peecapress.

Hyder, C. (1998). Wind and Water: Your Personal Feng Shei Journey. Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press

Marcus, C., and Barnes, M. (1999). Healing Gardens. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons.

Marberry, S. (Ed) (2006). Improving Healthcare with Better Building Design. Chicago, IL: Health Administration Press.

Pert, C. (1997). Molecules of Emotion. New York: Scribner.

Ulrich, R., Zimming, C. (2004). The Role of the Physical Environment in the 21st Century Hospital: A Once in a Lifetime Opportunity. Report to the Center for Health Design. Funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.